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Racial Equality: How America Has Progressed Over 150 Years
Racial Equity: How America has Progressed over 150 Years
Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 when the thirteenth amendment was added to the constitution. This marks a grim period in American history that to this day continues to have a rippling effect throughout our country. The United States has made significant advances toward equality for all of her citizens. There is no greater example of the progress we are making toward true equality than the election of our first African American president in 2008. I can recall sitting in front of my television, fingers crossed, praying for what was eventually to be. I vividly recall the tears of joy, relief and extreme pride that I felt in a country that had finally set aside prejudice in favor of hope and equality. The precedent that this single act set is monumental, as it also paves the way toward white America’s increasing respect and tolerance for citizens from a variety of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Given the state of the union today with regard to equality, it is almost incomprehensible to look back and remember from where we have come. The following court cases are perfect illustrations of a time that stained American history and serve as reminders of what could be if we allowed hatred and bigotry to once again rule our proud nation. History teaches us many things. We must never grow tired of learning from them.
Dred Scott vs. Sanford
Dred Scott was a former slave that had made attempts to purchase his and his family’s freedom with the help of abolitionist advisors. When his attempts failed, he used the legal system to sue for their emancipation. After a jury found in favor of the Scott family, the Supreme Court of Missouri overruled the decision and ordered that the Scotts were still considered to be slaves. It was this ruling that convinced Scott to take his case into federal court, where in 1857, the landmark ruling was issued.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people of African descent that had been imported to the United States and had been held as slaves had no protection under the U.S. Constitution and would never be allowed to obtain U.S. citizenship. This ruling extended not only to the formerly held slaves, but also to their descendents, whether or not they had also been held as slaves. This ruling included the stipulation that Congress had no authority over federal territories to abolish slavery in those territories, and that perons held as slaves, as a result of their lack of citizenship, had no rights to sue in court. Slaves were also not permitted to be removed from their owners without due process. To this day, there has never been a formal ruling to overturn the Dred Scott decision, thought protections afforded by the Fourteenth Amendment naturally dissolve some of the ruling's spirit and legality.
Plessy vs. Ferguson
In the late 1800s, after the American Civil War, the country began to pass Jim Crow Laws, which dictated that separate facilities must be held for blacks and whites. From these laws, separate water fountains and restrooms were constructed. Blacks were separated from whites in congregate settings such as courtrooms and public transport by being forced to the back of the bus, so to speak. Blacks were also required to have separate accommodations on railways including entirely separate cars.
Homer Plessy, a gentleman that was 1/8 black, became a member of the Citizens Committee to Test the Separate Car Act, which was comprised of both African Americans and whites from New Orleans, including then Governor, P.B.S. Pinchback. The group was dedicated in their efforts to have the Separate Car Act repealed. Plessy was able to purchase a ticket for the white car because of the light color of his skin. The plan was for Plessy to begin discussing his African American ancestry while on board in order to instigate his being thrown from the train and arrested in violation of the Separate Car Act, a move which the group then planned to challenge in court. Prior to his arrest, Plessy was asked to move to the “colored” car. When he refused, he was arrested.
While Plessy should have been granted protections under the Fourteenth Amendment, the court ruled in a 7 to 1 decision, that racial segregation was protected by federal law. It was suggested that segregation was a matter of mere public policy and not an act of discrimination. The Plessy case sparked the county’s movement toward Separate but Equal doctrine, which held that as long as the facilities provided for “coloreds” were of equal quality to those provided to whites, there was nothing illegal about enforcing such segregation.
Brown vs. the Board of Education
The Separate but Equal Doctrine that resulted from the Plessy vs. Ferguson case was put to the test when its constitutionality was called into question beginning in 1952 in the United States Supreme Court. It was during this landmark case that the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment began to be enforced. The plaintiff, Oliver Brown, was the parent of an African American child in the Topeka Kansas school district. He and the parents of twenty other black students challenged the Topeka Kansas Board of Education’s practice of erecting separate schools for black students. The law on the books stipulated that the district was permitted, but not required to provide separate facilities in twelve communities that had more than 15,000 citizens. The suit was instigated by the NAACP, which enlisted the help of the families named in the suit. The suit was not settled when heard in the spring of 1953 and the court reconvened in the fall of the same year.
The Brown case had a more positive outcome than that of Dred Scott’s and Homer Plessy’s cases several decades earlier. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools in several states are unconstitutional because they exist in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. While the court did not overturn the Separate but Equal doctrine, they did rule that such doctrine had no place in the field of education.
Loving vs. Virginia
It wasn’t until 1967 that marriages between blacks and whites were considered to be legal. This landmark civil rights case was unanimously decided by the US Supreme Court in a 9-0 ruling. Prior to 1967, marriages between the races had been disallowed. The case was brought forth on behalf of Mildred and Richard Perry Loving, an African American woman and white man, who had been married in the District of Columbia in 1958. Upon returning to the the Commonwealth of Virginia, the couple was declared in violation of the Racial Integrity Act when a group of officers burst into their private home hoping to find them having sex. While they were not “caught in the act,” they were in bed and taken into custody, despite being able to present a certificate of marriage. The couple was charged and sentenced each to one year in prison.
Prior rulings on the legality of marriage between the races included the following quote by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German philosopher and physician as adopted by presiding court judge Leon M. Bazile.
“Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for these races to mix.”
The quote is a far cry from quotations that can be cited from the Loving’s case, including this excerpt from court documents:
“…The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”
The Fifteenth Amendment
It wasn’t until 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, that blacks had been granted the right to vote. The amendment prohibited states from denying any citizen the right to vote based upon, among other things, race or color. The first black to vote was a former slave named Thomas Mundy Peterson, who voted in a school board election. During the period of 1865 to 1880, more black citizens were elected to office than at any other time in American history.
As we move forward as a unified nation, let us never forget the mistakes of our past, lest we be doomed to repeat them.
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